I’ve Seen Steelheart Bleed – The Reckoners in Review

Sparks! Slontze! Toss in maybe a quote or two from the book series and this is how we begin.

Or at least that’s how I’m supposed to begin.

As an old man from another beloved IP said, “this isn’t going to go how you think.”

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The Reckoners, that is the board game, is getting incredible reviews. I’m not oblivious to this. My review isn’t written in a vacuum and I don’t intend it to be read that way. I do intend that this piece of writing’s central message be clear: this design fails to deliver on its promise.

We started from the end but let’s continue from the beginning. A month ago I didn’t know anything about The Reckoners series of novels. These were written by some guy named Brandon Sanderson, some guy who many worship as a deified poet. I wasn’t there and I knew nothing of Epics or Mistborn when this journey began.

Now I know.

In preparation for this game I read Steelheart – the first book in The Reckoners series. Well, actually I listened to someone else tell the story because that’s how we read in 2018.

This is a book aimed squarely at young adults. I wasn’t immediately in love with the prose or verbiage. I’m balding, overweight, and have a nearly five year old daughter; I’m not the target audience. But that setting, oh that setting.

I’m not a fan of super heroes or their stories. The Reckoners is something different. It’s a gritty post-apocalyptic vision where all the supers are vile creatures devoid of humanity. The good guys are regular Joes using technology and a bit of improvisation to take down these invulnerable beasts. It’s fantastic and the narrative is spun at a breakneck pace with meaningful action.

So I hit the cardboard adaptation at 100MPH.

I collided with a wall.

Before we get to those bricks stained with my crimson pulp, how ’bout we lay some foundation.

At a high level this is a whack-a-mole cooperative design. You bounce around a few key locations attempting to put out fires (in the form of Epics, those powerful villains) while slowly chipping away at Steelheart himself. It’s balancing short term versus long term pursuits.

My truth be told, this is a more engaging and interesting design than Pandemic. It’s still a puzzle, but it’s one that feels more dynamic and fluid in presentation. The core dice action system is also a hum-dinger.

In a weird case of love gone wrong, Yahtzee combines with War of the Ring for some sweet undersheet shimmy. It’s that tired roll three times mechanism, but it’s paired effectively with some enormous chunky dice depicting actions.

These actions allow you to contain, weaken, attack, and research Epics. They also allow you to gather money for the group to purchase items. You can even plan by amassing nifty tokens that function as wild dice in the future. There’s a solid degree of choice and the interlocking strategy between participants gives way to constant discussion.

After settling on your results the group then spends their actions. There’s no defined turn order here and it’s all very spontaneous and vocal. The difficulty level of the game is high and you need to be on your toes to stay afloat.

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I also really adore the item system. The equipment is supremely powerful and functions as a veiled method of teching up. Your potency will increase and synergies will emerge as play rolls forward. It’s a powerful genesis for momentum.

Then the clock hits 60 and the game comes to a close. The pacing, much like Sanderson’s fiction, is fantastic with constant engagement and no downtime. The only break in attention is found within the administrative portion of enemy resolution. So yeah, who needs Pandemic.

But what about that wall, Charlie, the one with your brain and bone embedded?

Then there’s that.

While this design is undoubtedly fun, it’s a critical failure. Achieving a sense of “fun” is the lowest of bars. A game requires something more to attain greatness. Something more is what I didn’t get it.

The Reckoners lacks drama. No, not the books of course because nearly every page of every chapter tickles the spine. The game, however, is a bit of a stump.

The core dice mechanism is fine and even engaging, but it’s never pushed or extended in a meaningful way. Resolution is deterministic once those actions are decided. This undermines any notion of suspense. Compare this to the source material and you’ll see that it lacks that sense of spirit.

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Engaging an Epic in combat should be wild and unpredictable. You can’t even be harmed in this game so play translates to prevention and plinking away at tracks. You’re presented a slow realization of impending doom as the foes action bars resolve. This is the closest we ever get to dramatic action and it’s a slow boulder that we can see in the distance.

Those aforementioned tracks are another cringe trigger. On its face the game does hinge on researching the weaknesses of the depraved villains. This is a key component of the novels as every single Epic has a vulnerability. These are colorful and interesting quips such as being weakened while immensely attracted to someone or while inside a church.

In this design that concept of research is shallow. The implementation functions as essentially a second health meter. Attack this track first with the magnifying glass die face, then later attack this other one with the skull symbol.

A look towards Black Orchestra would have yielded stronger results. That game has players researching Adolf Hitler’s location and planning out an assassination plot. It’s a slow buildup of gathering unique assets before launching the strike. The climax is resolved with a roll of the dice modified by your efforts leading up to the action. Everyone in the room is standing and it’s deadly silent before it’s terribly loud. The Reckoners deserves a similar arc which parallels the subject matter perfectly, but it doesn’t get it.

Instead, the implementation of the fiction’s most central concepts are workmanlike. They’re streamlined and give the game a sense of smoothness, but they’re bland.

Epics themselves follow this philosophy. While they are unique due to an asymmetrical bar of action symbols, they lack presence. Their identity is subtle and mostly evident in the math behind the scene and the challenges they impose. They don’t feel like their source material’s counterparts. You get no sense of Nightwielder’s command of darkness or Faultline’s plate tectonic manipulation. It’s just another track that pops some Enforcement miniatures down and buffs Steelheart. Maybe it attacks the population pushing the Reckoners towards defeat.

Huh?

You didn’t read me wrong. The condition for defeat is a population track that the lords of Newcago chip away at each turn. The book makes it clear that Steelheart needs subjects in order to find meaning in his existence – the population is his most valuable commodity.

In the game, this is all backwards. A significant theme of the Steelheart novel is how the Reckoner’s actions actually inflict pain and suffering on the populace. A key challenge Megan grapples with is that destroying the dictator will leave many worse off. The cardboard equivalent sidesteps this internal conflict and reframes the discussion. This is a great failing.

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Similar to the Epics, we have all of these excellent locations with beautiful artwork and glorious plastic trays – but it’s all meaningless. Locations have no mechanical identity and they’re all the same. This game desperately needs a tether for players to latch onto but it shrugs its shoulders and turns away at each opportunity.

The overbearing abstraction is the core issue. All of the maintenance and resource tracking is not indicative of theme. The fictive work is focused on collecting evidence which leads to large moments of dramatic release. That’s not this game.

This product is beautiful. You can sit there and fondle the trays while ogling the wonderful visuals. You can knock out a solitaire game in 25 minutes or engage with a group of individuals with just a tad more commitment. It’s pleasant and fine. That’s just not enough.

When the sheets of molded plastic are wedged back into that cavernous box, what’s left? There’s no sense of shared fiction. The events of play do not carry a narrative. Nothing unusual happens and no specific slices of sharp story emerge. It’s all just sort of there.

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I want to track you down in a hallway of the Indianapolis convention center and fumble through words of excitement. I want a story to emerge, one we crafted of our own accord that felt like The Reckoners but was our Reckoners.

I do understand what happened here. The designers cut away at the complexity and directly aimed the game at wider appeal. The problem with attempting to cater to a more mainstream demographic is that the product is anything but. It’s a $100 release that’s as ‘luxe as it gets. The people buying this game are either going to leave it on their shelf as a memento or they’re going to be familiar with more sophisticated system concepts.

And “so what”, you say. The game offers an enjoyable experience and dresses up the proceedings enough to evoke its paired IP, at least at a surface level. I’m with you in body, but not in spirit. Just yesterday I rattled off several plays all by my lonesome. I could not stop returning to Newcago. But every single conclusion left me just teased and desiring more.

This game doesn’t do it. It doesn’t present the source material as a narrative playground to breakdance through. It’s not Star Wars: Rebellion or Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery. Compare the story beats and you will clearly see this brick is made of porridge.

Sparks!

  5 comments for “I’ve Seen Steelheart Bleed – The Reckoners in Review

  1. Ian Allen
    October 22, 2018 at 2:16 pm

    I played this last week as well. Solving the puzzle was sort of interesting. We got a rule wrong, we thought that the Epics came back out with 3 powers instead of 1 power – because they came out with 3 in the turn before the game starts or whatever. Needless to say we got our asses handed to us due to that mistake.

    I agree with you completely – its a big footprint math exercise and while I haven’t yet read the Sanderson novels, although I plan to, I can agree that other than the equipment cards and flavor text in the rule book about the characters, theme doesn’t really intrude into this game. That fact is amplified even more, as you point out, by the fact that the game is an implementation of a story that is dripping with theme.

    I am not sure who this game is for either. Its going to seem a bit sterile and bland to American style gamers willing to pay (I payed 200 bucks for an after-KS copy with the improved bits and pre-painted characters) the large price tag,
    but is going to be too costly for most euro gamers who like puzzle solving and are used to pasted on themes, but are more likely to buy a 30 dollar game for an experience like this than a 100 to 200 dollar game.

    It wasn’t un-fun, but it was glaringly obvious that it could have been a lot MORE fun if it took advantage of the storehouse worth of details available from the IP instead of just mathing everything.

    I wonder if playing Dune recently has pushed you further down the path of wanting theme incorporated in meaningful ways in your games. It did for me. The further I have gone down this rabbit-hole, the less I want to play soul-less cube pushers and dice chuckers.

    I want a story to tell after I play a game these days.

    You might hear me saying something like – “I think we should use the money die rolls more in the beginning of the Reckoners if we ever play it again”, but what you won’t hear me saying is very telling.

    You won’t hear me saying “I can’ believe (character name) nearly died but finally wiped out (epic villain name) with only her bare hands … but then those grenades blew up the building and killed all but 1 civilian … and then Steelheart (at least I remember that name) wiped us all out with his (don’t know what his powers are) power!

    Not only is there no story to tell from the game but the heroes and villains were so generic that I can’t remember a single one of their names other than Steelheart and that one only because it was mentioned so many times in the rules. I sure can’t remember a Location board name – what’s the point when they are all identical.

    It didn’t help the cause any that the central mechanic is dice rolling. While that is a fun mechanic – there is no room for flavor text on a d6. A game like Elder Dice gets around that by having flavor text on cards all over the place and then the dice interact with the cards, so a lot of theme can be injected and interfaced with in that way.

    In Reckoners you are just ticking off points and I agree the double health track where you research first then attack the health – is not super interesting without the research having any other game impact than just another die roll.

    I think there is a crowd of people that would love this game, but I think its over-produced and over-priced for that crowd, so I don’t know if its going to connect with them as well as it could have at a lower price point and without all the trays that seemed unnecessary and jacked the price up.

    Like

    • Ian Allen
      October 22, 2018 at 2:18 pm

      By Elder Dice I meant Elder Sign.

      Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2018 at 2:24 pm

      Wonderful timing. For sure, we’re totally on the same page.

      I think Dune may have pushed me a little further that way, but I already recognized that’s precisely what I want from gaming. I still dig some puzzle-y games or Euro-style designs that don’t fit that philosophy of course, but The Reckoners is up there competing with the best of the best IP designs of recent years and it’s coming away very short.

      I decided to hang onto it as they’re working on an expansion. If i didn’t enjoy the book so much I’d probably already have traded it away.

      Like

  2. October 22, 2018 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for your review, Charlie! We are indeed working on expansion material to bring more details in from the source materials that will add greater complexity to the game.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 22, 2018 at 4:28 pm

      That’s great to hear, I look forward to giving it a try and see how that alters my opinion.

      I definitely hope the game is successful, despite my critical take. It’s off to a smashing start already.

      Like

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